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Following release from a N.D. internment camp, a German soldier decided to make his home here

"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen shares the story of Karl Spindler, a German soldier who settled in Bismarck after World War II.

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Curt Eriksmoen, "Did You Know That" columnist.

A German officer who had a high-profile military reputation in World War I was incarcerated at an American internment camp in Bismarck during World War II. Following Karl Spindler’s release from the camp, with the ending of World War II, he obtained employment in Bismarck and spent the rest of his life there. This may appear very unusual because it is highly unlikely that any of the surviving prisoners at German internment camps in Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, or Treblinka decided to live in those towns once they obtained their freedom. Most former prisoners wanted to get as far away as possible from the internment camps.

Karl Von Drachenfels Spindler was born on May 2, 1887, in the resort town of Konigswinter, near Cologne, Prussia (renamed Germany in 1918), to Hubertus and Elise (Fuchs) Spindler. The Drachenfels (“Dragon’s Rock”) is a hill next to the town that was formed by rising magma that could not break through to the surface. As a result, this hill contains valuable rock used for building castles and other significant structures. Hubertus owned and operated a stone quarry and was able to financially provide for a good education for his son. After receiving his basic schooling, Karl enrolled in the marine school in Bremen where he was educated in all facets of naval operation, including communication, navigation, above water warfare, underwater warfare, command, and control.

Spindler then attended the naval academy in Sonderburg, a city in the duchy of Schleswig, in the extreme southeastern corner of the Jutland/Danish peninsula. At that time Schlewig was controlled by Prussia, but following the defeat of Prussia in World War I, the citizens of Schlewig voted to become part of Denmark. At Sonderburg, Spindler received basic military training, officers’ training with an emphasis on leadership, naval warfare, naval history, psychology, administration, social sciences, and economics. At the completion of this training and education, Spindler was awarded a commission in the merchant marines on April 1, 1910.

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Karl Spindler
Contributed / Public Domain / U.S. Military photo / Wikimedia Commons

During his early years in the Prussian Merchant Marines, Spindler served aboard several ships in the merchant fleet. Then, with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he was transferred to the minesweeper division and later was named commander of the coast defense of light cruisers. In January of 1915, Spindler became chief mate of an artillery ship and was promoted to lieutenant. Later, he was transferred to the North Sea and named commander of the Polarstern, a guardship that protected Wilhelmshaven, Prussia’s main military port.

On March 20, 1916, Spindler was given a special, top-secret assignment to take a cargo of Prussian arms (20,000 rifles, 10 machine guns, ammunition and explosives) to the west coast of Ireland so that Irish republicans could stage an open rebellion against Great Britain. If this was to occur, it would divert much of Britain’s efforts away from fighting Prussia during the Great War, which would become World War I. The inspirational leader of the Irish Republicans was Sir Roger Casement, who was to accompany Spindler on his mission to Ireland. Casement had been a diplomat for the British Foreign Office and was knighted for exposing the mistreatment of the natives in the Amazon of South America and the Africans in the Congo by rubber plantation officials. In 1913, Casement took up the cause of Irish revolutionaries who wanted their independence from English rule.

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Spindler was given command of a ship named Libau which was falsely renamed Aud Norge, a Norwegian freighter, and a crew of 16 to accompany him on his mission. At Berlin, Spindler was given further orders and met with Casement. Instead of traveling on the Aud, Casement requested to travel separately on a submarine. Casement was dropped off near the shore of County Kerry and, soon afterward, was arrested on April 21, 1916, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Casement was charged with high treason against the United Kingdom, and was later tried and convicted of treason and executed.

British naval vessels intercepted Spindler’s ship near the Blasket Islands, off the west coast of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, and forced it to sail to Queenstown, the site of a major British naval base. On the way there, Spindler ordered his crew to open the ship’s sea-valves and blow an explosive charge in the hold. As the ship was sinking, the crew took down the Norwegian flag and hoisted the German Imperial flag. All of the ship members, including Spindler, boarded a couple of small boats and were arrested as British prisoners of war.

The crew of the Aud was incarcerated in Donington Hall, a mansion near Nottingham and Derby that was converted into a prison. The crew later escaped, but were recaptured the following day, and spent most of the war back in the prison. Spinler’s health began to decline and, on April 22, 1918, he was transferred to the Netherlands in a prisoner exchange. He returned to Germany and served as a communications officer until the end of World War I. Spindler retired from military service on Feb. 28, 1919.

For his action and bravery during the war, Spindler was awarded two Prussian Iron Crosses and other significant medals. In 1921, Spindler finished writing a book about his experiences on the Aud, which was translated into English with the title "The Mystery Ship." The next year he traveled to the U.S. to give talks promoting his book. In 1931, Spindler was informed that he was to receive a special award by the U.S. Irish Committee for risking “his life for liberty” in 1916 and he returned to the U.S.

Spindler received the medal at the giant hall of the Mecca Temple theater (in New York City) amid the roaring jubilation of the enthused crowd. He was also invited to carry out a lecture tour in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. In Boston, Spindler was awarded the key to the city, and in San Francisco he became the first recipient of the “Key to California.” Because of his love of the U.S. and his abhorrence of Hitler and Nazism, Spindler decided to make the U.S. his new home, although he did make return trips to Germany in 1932 and 1935 to visit his family.

Spindler failed to get permanent residency or naturalization in the U.S. and, because of this, he was arrested and sent to Fort Lincoln in Bismarck to be incarcerated. The prison held a total of 3,850 internees of German and Japanese descent, and it received its first 220 German prisoners on May 31, 1941. However, I don’t believe that Spindler was sent there until after the U.S. officially declared war on Germany on Dec. 11.

Fort Lincoln was a former military outpost that had been converted into the state Civilian Conservation Corps headquarters in 1933. In addition to the existing wooden barracks buildings, there were three two-story brick barracks erected to hold prisoners. The camp was surrounded by a 10-foot cyclone fence. After a number of escape attempts, three strands of barbed wire were added to the top of the fence, along with seven watchtowers, each equipped with floodlights. Within the German section of the camp were a theater, indoor pool, skating rink, and a casino that sold beer and wine

By the end of the war, Spindler was in poor health and released. He decided to stay in Bismarck, which had a large German community, and got a job as a salesman. Spindler died on Nov. 29, 1951, and was buried in the Fairview Cemetery in Bismarck.

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com.

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTAHISTORY
Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com or calling 701-793-8508.
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